A02022 Australian troops in the Lone Pine trenches.
AWM A02022

Australia’s involvement in the First World War began when Britain and Germany went to war on 4 August 1914, and both Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher, who were in the midst of an election campaign, pledged full support for Britain. The outbreak of war was greeted in Australia, as in many other places, with great enthusiasm.

The first significant Australian action of the war was the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force’s (ANMEF) landing on Rabaul on 11 September 1914. The ANMEF took possession of German New Guinea at Toma on 17 September 1914 and of the neighbouring islands of the Bismarck Archipelago in October 1914. On 9 November 1914 the Royal Australian Navy made a major contribution when HMAS Sydney destroyed the German raider SMS Emden.

On 25 April 1915 members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landed on Gallipoli in Turkey with troops from New Zealand, Britain, and France. This began a campaign that ended with an evacuation of allied troops beginning in December 1915. The next year Australian forces fought campaigns on the Western Front and in the Middle East.

Throughout 1916 and 1917 losses on the Western Front were heavy and gains were small. In 1918 the Australians reached the peak of their fighting performance in the battle of Hamel on 4 July. From 8 August they then took part in a series of decisive advances until they were relieved in early October. Germany surrendered on 11 November.

The Middle East campaign began in 1916 with Australian troops taking part in the defence of the Suez Canal and the allied re-conquest of the Sinai Desert. In the following year Australian and other allied troops advanced into Palestine and captured Gaza and Jerusalem; by 1918 they had occupied Lebanon and Syria and on 30 October 1918 Turkey sued for peace.

For Australia, the First World War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

 

A03771 An Australian digger uses a periscope in a trench captured during the attack on Lone Pine, Gallipoli, 8 August 1915.
AWM A03771

When Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, Australia, as a dominion of the British Empire, was automatically also at war. While thousands rushed to volunteer, most of the men accepted into the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914 were sent first to Egypt, not Europe, to meet the threat which a new belligerent, the Ottoman Empire, posed to British interests in the Middle East and the Suez Canal.

After four and a half months of training near Cairo, the Australians departed by ship for the Gallipoli peninsula, along with troops from New Zealand, Britain, and France. On 25 April 1915 the Australians landed at what became known as Anzac Cove, whereupon they established a tenuous foothold on the steep slopes above the beach. During the early days of the campaign the allies tried to break through Turkish lines, while the Turks tried to drive the allied troops off the peninsula. Attempts on both sides ended in failure and the ensuing stalemate continued for the remainder of 1915. In fact, the most successful operation of the campaign was the large-scale evacuation of troops on 19 and 20 December. As a result of a carefully planned deception operation, the Turks were unable to inflict more than a very few casualties on the withdrawing forces.

After Gallipoli the AIF was reorganised and expanded from two to five infantry divisions, all of which were progressively transferred to France, beginning in March 1916. The light horse regiments that had served as additional infantry during the Gallipoli campaign remained in the Middle East. By the time the other AIF divisions arrived in France, the war on the Western Front had long been in a stalemate, with the opposing armies facing each other from trench systems that extended across Belgium and north-east France, all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The development of machine-guns and artillery favoured defensive over offensive operations, and this compounded the impasse that lasted until the final months of the war.

 

A03042 Troops of 53rd Battalion wait to don equipment for the attack at Fromelles, 19 July 1916. Only three of these men survived.
AWM A03042

While the fighting continued throughout 1916 and 1917, the Australians and other allied armies repeatedly attacked the German trenches, preceded by massive artillery bombardments intended to cut barbed wire and destroy defences. After these bombardments, waves of attacking infantry would emerge from the trenches into no man’s land and advance towards the enemy positions. The surviving Germans, protected by deep and heavily reinforced bunkers, were usually able to repel the attackers with machine-gun fire and artillery support from the rear. These attacks often resulted in limited territorial gains followed, in turn, by German counter-attacks. Although this style of warfare favoured the defensive armies, both sides sustained heavy losses.

In July 1916 Australian troops were introduced to this type of combat at Fromelles, where they suffered 5,533 casualties in 24 hours. By the end of the year about 40,000 Australians had been killed or wounded on the Western Front. In 1917 a further 76,836 Australians became casualties in battles such Bullecourt, Messines, and the four-month campaign around Ypres known as the battle of Passchendaele.

E01202  Australian wounded infantrymen at the first battle of Passchendaele, near Zonnebeke railway station.
AWM E01202

In March 1918 the German army launched a massive Spring Offensive, hoping for a decisive victory before the industrial strength of the United States could be fully mobilised in support of the allies. The Germans initially met with great success, advancing 64 kilometres past the Somme battlefields of 1916, but eventually lost momentum. Between April and November the stalemate of the preceding years began to give way. When the German offensive failed, the allied armies began their own counter-offensive combining infantry, artillery, tanks, and aircraft to great effect, demonstrated in the Australian capture of Hamel on 4 July 1918. Beginning on 8 August, this offensive contributed to further Australian successes at Mont St Quentin and Péronne and to the capture of the Hindenburg Line. In early October, after the fighting at Montbrehain, the Australian divisions withdrew from the front for rest and refitting; they were preparing to return to the fighting when Germany signed the Armistice on 11 November.

B01697 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment machine-gunners in action at Khurbetha-Ibn-Harith, near Palestine, 31 December 1917.
AWM B01697

The Australians in the Middle East fought a mobile war against the Ottoman Empire in conditions completely different from the mud and stagnation of the Western Front. Mounted troops of the Australian Light Horse and the Imperial Camel Corps endured extreme heat, harsh terrain, and water shortages, yet casualties were comparatively light, with 1,394 Australians killed or wounded in three years of fighting.

The desert campaign began in 1916 when Australian troops took part in the defence of the Suez Canal and the allied action to take back the Sinai Desert. In the following year Australian troops participated in a British push into Palestine that captured Gaza and Jerusalem; by 1918 they had occupied Lebanon and Syria and were riding into Damascus. On 30 October 1918 Turkey sued for peace.

Australians also served at sea and in the air. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), under the command of the British Royal Navy, made a significant contribution early in the war, when HMAS Sydney destroyed the German raider SMS Emden near the Cocos–Keeling Islands in November 1914. The Great War was the first armed conflict in which aircraft were used; some 3,000 Australian airmen served with the Australian Flying Corps in the Middle East and France, mainly in observation capacities or providing air support for the infantry.

EN0470 HMAS Sydney at full speed, ten minutes after the ceasefire was ordered in her battle with the German cruiser Emden.
AWM EN0470

Australian women volunteered for service in auxiliary roles: as cooks, nurses, drivers, interpreters, munitions workers, and farm workers. While the government welcomed the service of nurses into the armed forces, it generally rejected offers from women in other professions to serve overseas. Australian nurses served in Egypt, France, Greece, and India, often in trying conditions or close to the front, where they were exposed to shelling and aerial bombardment as well as outbreaks of disease.

The effects of the war werealso felt at home. Families and communities grieved for the loss of so many men, and women increasingly assumed the physical and financial burden of caring for families. Anti-German feeling also emerged with the outbreak of the war, and many Germans living in Australia were sent to internment camps. Censorship and surveillance, regarded by many as an excuse to silence political views that had no effect on the outcome of war, increased as the conflict continued. Social division also grew, reaching a climax in the bitterly contested (and unsuccessful) conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917. When the war ended, thousands of ex–servicemen and servicewomen, many disabled with physical or emotional wounds, had to be re-integrated into a society keen to consign the war to the past and resume normal life.

P00228.023 9th Australian Light Horse bring in Turkish prisoners in the Sinai, 13 April 1916.
AWM P00228.023

Sources and further reading:

C.E.W. Bean, Anzac to Amiens, Penguin Books Australia, New York, 1993.

J. Beaumont, Australia’s war 1914–1918 Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1995.

Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.

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  • Roll of Honour: details of members of the Australian armed forces who died while on active service
  • First World War Nominal Roll: details of approximately 324,000 AIF personnel, recorded to assist with their repatriation to Australia from overseas service following the First World War; see the introduction for further details
  • First World War Embarkation Roll: details of approximately 330,000 AIF personnel, recorded as they embarked from Australia for overseas service during the First World War
  • Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files: approximately 32,000 individual case files of Australian personnel reported as wounded or missing during the First World War

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